This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to covering Minnesota's immigrants and communities of color. Sign up for their free newsletter to receive their stories in your inbox.
Azrin Awal, a City Council candidate in Duluth, all but ruled out a career in politics by the time she was in third grade. Hailing from Bangladesh, she had just found out she could never be president, since she wasn’t born in the United States.
“I was a little peeved, given the fact that I’ve been here since I was three years old,” Awal, 25, said with a laugh. “Any child who’s come to the U.S. under the age of five, this is our home.”
Over the years, she found other ways to stay active, while pursuing a public health degree at the University of Minnesota in Duluth. She never considered running for city council at such a young age, until she started receiving calls urging her to run for an open position in Duluth.
“The first call I got, I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can do that’,” Awal said. “And then boom — all these calls started coming in from mentors and peers.”
Awal is a youth advocate and public health undergraduate student running for an open seat on Duluth’s City Council as a DFL-endorsed, progressive candidate. Two other candidates are vying for two open seats on Nov. 2: incumbent Terese Tomanek, board chair of the Lake Superior College Foundation; and Joe Macor, a foster care business owner in Duluth.
Awal, an immigrant from Bangladesh who moved to Duluth to attend college, received the most votes during the primaries in August (at 24 percent). If elected, she’ll become the first Asian American and Muslim City Councilmember in Duluth’s 165-year history.
Just 0.4 percent behind, Tomanek received 23.69 percent of the votes. Macor won 21 percent. Tim Meyer, who emerged as a fourth candidate in the primaries with 8 percent of votes, withdrew from the race in August. His name will still be on the ballot.
Duluth, known as the San Francisco of the Midwest for its similar hilltop-to-water topography, is situated on the shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota. The population of about 85,000 is 88 percent white and 10 percent people of color. The Asian community makes up just under 2 percent, according to Minnesota Compass, a demographics research agency. About 3 percent of residents in Duluth are foreign-born, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Awal said she’s found success in the race so far by building a diverse coalition of supporters in Duluth. Still, she’s been struggling with the pitfalls of running for office as a Muslim woman who wears the hijab. She has experienced feelings of tokenization as well as Islamophobic memes attacking her on Facebook.
“I’m recognizing why queer, immigrants, Black, people of color, Indigenous folks don’t run,” for office, Awal said. “There are so many barriers for us to run and for us to be professional in this. All that being said, my team is working really hard and we’re running an amazing campaign.”
Growing up in the Twin Cities
Awal’s father, Mohammed Awal, immigrated to New York City from Bangladesh in 1991. Awal and her mother, Tobassuma Bari, followed in 1999, as the family moved to Minneapolis. Awal grew up in the Maple Grove area.
“My family in Bangladesh, they were merchants, they were spiritual leaders, they were freedom fighters,” Awal said. “They fought for their independence and the right to speak their language and be present, authentically, as themselves. That was something that I carried forward when I came here.”
Awal describes her family as working class. They previously owned an Indian restaurant in Maple Grove called Kabob & Curry, which they had to let go during the Great Recession. Like other immigrant families, Awal noticed at an early age that her parents left their family and support systems behind for the American Dream, “whatever this American dream is,” Awal said.
Awal’s cousin, Mahzabin Khan, describes Awal as “passionate” and “selfless.” Khan hadn’t spent much time with Awal growing up, since she lived in Bangladesh until 2013, when she started school at Winona State University as an international student. Khan spent weekends, summer vacations, Eid, and other holidays with Awal’s family.
Khan said she felt welcomed and safe in Awal’s home, despite the fact that she didn’t know the family well at first. She remembered the house always being open as Awal’s parents often hosted friends. Awal, who’s close in age to Khan, especially looked out for her.
“I have a tough shell. But she has an aura that is so safe and accepting that she was able to crack me overnight,” Khan said of Awal.
Khan also remembered Awal being the type of person who “loves to sign up for things,” like presentations and volunteer opportunities. She connected easily with people. Khan wasn’t surprised to learn that Awal would be running for office.
Awal’s childhood friend Nawshin Sharif agreed: “It’s something that I expected to happen. I was more so wondering when it would.”
Sharif always anticipated a call from Awal saying she was running for something or other.
“She called me and she said, ‘I’m finally doing it.’ Of course, Azrin can be super dramatic,” Sharif joked. “The way she said it made me think she got proposed to.”
Sharif, who’s known Awal since they were both 12 years old, said Awal has never been one to shy away from speaking up at school. Sharif said Awal was always happy to talk about Islam with people at school and would wear her cultural clothing to homecoming dances.
When Awal moved to Duluth for college, she found new ways to use her voice.
Coursework to campaigns
Awal said she couldn’t afford to go to college outside of Minnesota, but she still “wanted to leave the nest.” She got into the University of Minnesota Duluth and decided she would stay two years before transferring to another school. “Then I ended up falling in love with Duluth,” she said. She’s been living there for six years.
Awal helped found the university’s chapter of the NAACP and now serves on the Duluth NAACP Board. She worked as an advocate for the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault on campus. As a student, Awal also helped push for the Homeless Persons’ Bill of Rights in Duluth.
While Awal finished her coursework last year, she can’t officially graduate until she pays off her tuition. So she’s currently working full time at Life House, a nonprofit that serves at-risk youth experiencing homelessness. She also works at Mentor North, an organization that connects youth with mentors in the community. On the weekends, Awal cooks healthy meals at Individual Nutrition, a community-based meal delivery service.
Awal said the issues she’s prioritizing on her campaign platform come from her personal experience living in Duluth as a college student. She couldn’t afford to live on campus and struggled to find a safe apartment. She often dealt with water leaks and bed bug infestations.
“There was a time when I didn’t have housing because my landlord wanted to make renovations,” Awal said. “For three months, I didn’t have a place to stay.”
She resorted to sleeping in her friends’ cars or on their couches.
“We have a housing crisis in Duluth,” Awal said, noting a lack of single-unit family homes and low-income housing. “But there’s a lot of high-end housing coming in — that’s not helping our constituents.”
As someone who didn’t have a car in college, Awal is committed to expanding transportation access by improving public transit lines and creating more-walkable neighborhoods.
Awal has also called for the city to accelerate its role in addressing climate change. If elected, she said she will push for the city to better prepare for extreme weather events and work on decreasing carbon emissions.
Awal said she looks at all these issues through a racial and class “equity lens,” a concern at the center of her platform.
‘You really put your body out there’
Engulfed in the nonprofit sphere, Awal was surprised to receive an increasing number of calls earlier in the year telling her to run for City Council. The calls came from mentors, peers, and former city officials, with their political views ranging from moderate to liberal to progressive.
Zack Filipovich, Duluth’s youngest City Council president, was first elected in 2013 and won again in 2017. He announced in April that he won’t be running for reelection. With a liberal, DFL-endorsed councilmember off the ballot, Azrin stood out as a potential progressive candidate the party could back.
”She is running a very well-oiled campaign,” Filipovich said. “It’s awesome to see her voice coming through in this election cycle.”
Filipovich predicts building more affordable housing will be the main priority facing the incoming council, one of Awal’s major campaign platform issues.
Awal hesitated to run at first, and it wasn’t just because she felt she was too young.
“The majority of the people who approached me were white,” Awal said. “There was a part of me that was like: “Am I being tokenized here?’”
She brushed off the thought and said she would instead use the opportunity to push for progressive change, especially for immigrants and communities of color. The people who convinced her to run, she added, were her mentors who’ve known Awal for a long time. “They have my best interests at heart.”
“You really put your body out there,” she said. “Especially when you hold diverse identities that the normative culture is not used to.”
The pushback hasn’t been easy for Awal. Since announcing her run, Awal has dealt with hate-filled messages and Islamophobic memes circulating on social media. The numbers show there’s support for Awal in Duluth, but the Facebook posts suggest otherwise.
Awal shared some of the memes with Sahan Journal. In one, a photoshopped flyer reads “Vote for Azrin Awal” with “Duluth Sharia City Council” written under it. On the flyer, Awal’s face merges with that of U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar.
Another post invented an image of a newscast, showing a photo of the Taliban’s recent takeover of the Afghan government. The poster photoshopped in an old profile picture dug up from Awal’s Facebook account. The fake headline reads, “Celebrating with friends. Azrin Awal makes history.”
“I’m getting a lot of pushback,” Awal said. “But I’m also opening people’s minds and forcing people to reevaluate what equity means.”
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